Ever since mobile communications and tracking systems became available in the late 1980s and early 1990s, carriers have saved time and money by eliminating check calls from drivers and making dispatchers’ work more efficient. But often, the principal function of the communications system was to convert voice communications into data. Drivers and dispatchers still had to initiate each communication.
Some of the latest enhancements help automate communications between dispatchers and drivers, even as fleets collect more information than ever from the field to speed internal processes, such as billing, and monitoring vehicle and driver performance. Today’s technology allows drivers and managers to focus on only the most important activities and let computer systems handle the rest.
Relieving the driver
One of the primary benefits of wireless fleet management solutions is eliminating the need to contact drivers regularly for status updates, or worse, relying on the drivers to contact the office.
Dispatchers at Holmes Freight Lines receive a position report on all vehicles at 7:30 each morning using a web-based fleet management system from AirIQ. From the position report, dispatchers can determine approximately where a driver stands on log hours and calculate arrival times. If they notice a potential problem, only then do they page the driver to call the office, says James Holmes, president of the 50-truck carrier based in Toronto.
“We also use it in discussions with our customers to charge back for detention times,” Holmes says. “We use the system strictly for vehicle location and information, and to send a signal to the driver to call the terminal.”
Having a system report only exceptions as they occur increases the amount of data that can be monitored in real-time, enabling managers to correct problems before they occur, such as late deliveries or unsafe driving. Most vendors of business management systems have incorporated features that highlight through electronic alerts and color-coding, for example, only those results that deviate from user-defined norms.
Portland, Ore.-based Kool Pac Inc. remotely monitors trailer temperature, idling and speed by exception using a reporting feature in its @Road web-based fleet management system called Exception Services. If trailer temperature falls outside set parameters, dispatchers get an instant e-mail alert, says Wade Palmer, chief financial officer of the 50-truck refrigerated carrier. Palmer says Kool Pac seeks to correct problems immediately in one of two ways – by sending the driver a message through the @Road system or calling him directly on his phone.
Contract Freighters Inc., a 2,400-truck carrier based in Joplin, Mo., broadcasts its most important exception reports on large projection screens in its operations center. Information broadcast on the screens includes a color-coded display of loads that the computer determines may run late, says Bruce Stockton, vice president of operations. Green is used to indicate that a truck may be running behind. Yellow means it is running behind, and red means it is definitely going to be late, Stockton says.
Intelligence on board
Exception reporting makes it possible to monitor a wide range of driver and vehicle performance data in real time. But driver input is essential for some applications, and advancements made in onboard computing have enabled fleets to simplify driver input to speed internal processes, such as billing, with minimal error. Contrast that with a “dumb” terminal, such as a pager, that simply relays information back and forth between drivers and dispatchers.
Pre-programmed routes, weather conditions, load information, ETA and hours-of-service information are all examples of information than can be embedded into onboard computers, says Dan Harris, product manager for Delphi’s TruckPC. Furthermore, integration with dispatch and load-planning software makes it possible to automatically load customer locations into an onboard computer with GPS to track customer locations and monitor that loads are dropped at the right spot in real-time, Harris says.
What this means is that onboard computers enable fleets to automatically present drivers with a statement based on the intelligence they gather, such as “You have arrived at customer A,” and prompt them to confirm or deny it, rather than rely on manual communication with the driver to obtain that information.
“We’ve used cell phones, we’ve used radios, and we’ve used pagers,” says Bruce Kalem, chief executive officer of Milan Express, a 440-truck LTL carrier based in Nashville, Tenn. But five months ago, the company took a different turn and decided to invest in a solution that lets drivers send full pickup and delivery manifests with electronic signatures in real-time.
Milan Express runs a mobile, Windows-based application from a company called Agentek on Symbol handheld computers using Qualcomm’s Omnitracs system for the data network between the field and office. The Agentek solution is designed to minimize driver input, Kalem says. A driver hits a button when he arrives at a location, verifies the pieces, and if the pickup is right, he hits ‘OK’, and hits another button when he leaves. The system also prompts the driver to capture a signature.
Manifests and proof of delivery receipts are then transmitted to the office’s AS400 system, updating the tracking feature on the company’s website in real-time, Kalem says. Once fully operational, the company expects an average savings of two days from the billing cycle for customers who require delivery receipts to accompany invoices. In addition to offering real-time tracking for customers, terminal managers know where freight is destined and can begin line-haul planning before drivers return to the terminal with their pickups, Kalem says.
To help automate the process of data collection in the field, many fleets design custom software applications with macros (user-defined commands) to prompt drivers to input information. Instead of transmitting text messages back and forth, macros, stored in an onboard computer, send only the incremental changes to the data input into an application – such as a signature on a proof of delivery receipt, or changes to a load manifest (weight, number of pallets, etc.).
Many carriers also set up their systems to give drivers a short list of “canned” messages to select from, such as “arrived at shipper” to limit free-form text messaging. The use of macros and canned messages make it possible for the system to transmit a very small amount of data – a code – back and forth instead of a string of characters.
Magnum Ltd. uses a variety of electronic forms to capture important billing information and automate several other types of driver-to-dispatch communications.
“What we’ve tried to do is take it to a different level,” says Jade Nelson, fleet operations manager for the 160-truck carrier in Fargo, N.D. “Our forms and macros have all pertinent information already filled out for the driver upon sending his or her dispatch to the truck.”
When the driver is loaded at the shipper, the driver simply pulls up the form on the dash display of the PeopleNet wireless fleet management system, and enters in the piece count, weight, bill of lading number, seal number, pallet information and trailer inspection information. Nelson says drivers also use a form to request time off. Macros prompt the drivers to enter the date and time they will be ready to return to work; and what lanes they prefer to run. If they need to be in a specific city, they can input that into a form as well.
“The time-off request form has enabled our dispatchers to proactively plan for idle equipment, which has resulted in increased miles per power unit,” Nelson says.
Using multiple choice answers to reduce message sizes and simplify communication, the information captured by drivers in its PeopleNet system is automatically integrated into the company’s dispatch and accounting package from Red River Software, Nelson says.
Joplin, Mo.-based CFI has used macros in its mobile communications since it bought the Highway Master system in 1993, says Bruce Stockton, vice president of operations. But there is a downside to making communication with a driver too formulaic.
“We were limited on how easy it was for the driver to send a text message,” Stockton says. With Highway Master, most of the communications with drivers consisted of yes or no questions, or entering the trailer number or bill of lading number by using the numeric keys on a telephone. CFI’s recent decision to install Aether’s MobileMax units in all of its trucks addresses this shortcoming with easier forms to use and a full keypad, as opposed to using the numeric keypad on the telephones in the Highway Master system.
“Form sets are a Windows program with a box that pops up, and the driver fills in blanks. He can type a paragraph if he needs to. If he needs to communicate a paragraph, though, we would rather have him pick up the phone and call us.”
With new script-based languages, fleet managers are finding it easier to quickly build and customize their use of macros and forms to gather information from the field.
“The script language allows fleets to create their own forms,” says Sachel Gidwani, president of Mobile Aria, the wireless partner provider for Delphi Electronics’ TruckPC. Because of script languages, Gidwani says that the applications fleets decide to run on the TruckPC – an onboard unit that fits into the radio slot in the cab – are “infinitely adaptable.” In addition, Gidwani says that macros can be created to operate via voice recognition so drivers can input data without having to stop and look at a display and press buttons.
Geofencing is a recent enhancement that some vendors of wireless fleet management systems now include to further automate communication between drivers, vehicles and the office. Geofencing sets up an imaginary radius around a location, and can be used to trigger an automatic action – such as a message or alert – based on the event of a vehicle crossing the imaginary boundary.
Using exception management and intelligent computing, fleets can eliminate macros and automate communications between drivers, dispatchers, and between customers and other parties in the “supply chain.” Instead of prompting a driver to press a button when arriving at a location, a dispatcher back at the office would automatically receive the message “arrived at shipper” when the driver pulls into the gate or “truck has not arrived.”
Last year, PeopleNet Communications added a service for automated messaging called IMessaging as part of its Pacos platform, says Brian McLaughlin, PeopleNet’s director of marketing.
“GPS says ‘the truck is here,’ but with Pacos, it starts to say ‘the truck is not here’ or it says ‘the truck has just arrived, now take these actions,'” McLaughlin says. “Location-based messaging is something we’ve been looking at doing for long time. You don’t want drivers doing macros. Let the drivers drive.”
Location-based, automated response is the “highest level” of the new enhancements in Qualcomm’s products, says Norm Ellis, business director, Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. The company’s FleetAdvisor product, released last year, allows fleets to send positions to a vehicle’s onboard computer, and when a driver arrives at a location the computer automatically prompts him to confirm his arrival. “He just presses ‘yes’ on a touch screen when asked, ‘have you arrived?'” Ellis says. “It’s being used now in thousands of vehicles. It helps get driver participation – it forces him to respond.”
When managing a fleet of drivers, limiting the amount of manual, routine communications with them, whether by voice, text or data – leads to greater efficiency and less cost. With less of your time needed for routine tasks, and more time available to make corrections and improvements, perhaps you will actually have time to listen when all a driver really needs is someone to talk to.
Keeping costs down
For LTL carriers that may have as many transactions in one day, per truck, as a truckload carrier has in one week, limiting the amount of data sent over a satellite-based network is necessary to minimize costs.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Milan Express, a 440-truck LTL carrier with 35 terminals located in the Southeast, recently implemented the satellite-based OmniTracs system from Qualcomm for its vehicle to office data network.
Since Milan Express’ drivers sometimes make 15 stops per day, the company uses Agentek, a Qualcomm certified solutions provider, to significantly reduce communication costs to send full pickup and delivery manifests with electronic signatures in real time.
The Agentek solution shrinks a complete manifest and proof of delivery with signature capture of each pickup and delivery from a range of 150 kilobytes to 1 megabyte to between 50 and 100 byte-size satellite message packets, says Eric Anderson, president of Agentek. Because of this technology, Milan Express is able to keep its messages under Qualcomm’s monthly plan of 18,000 kilobytes, says Milan Express CEO Bruce Kalem. The AgentDelivery runs on PPT-2800 Mobile Computers from Symbol Technologies that drivers carry with them.
What makes this solution work is that the company’s entire customer master file – about 20,000 customers – is stored on the Symbol handheld computers. Instead of sending the customer information over the Qualcomm network, “the beauty of Agentek is that it sends just one character – a code for the whole shipper’s address,” Kalem says. Any changes to the customer master files are synced to the handhelds each day after drivers return their handhelds to the cradles connected to the company’s mainframe computer.
Terrestrial-based fleet management systems also continue to offer flexible pricing options and technologies. PeopleNet Communications recently introduced new pricing options covering homeland security and unlimited messaging. The homeland security package, which ranges from $30 to $40 a month per unit, depending on features, starts with basic GPS tracking and hourly position reports. The more robust option includes 911 emergency calls through an in-cab handset, on-demand fleet location and Pacos, which provides automatic notification of key events between initial dispatch and delivery completion.
Aether’s MobileMax system uses multi-mode technology to automatically switch to satellite coverage where cellular is not available. This is one of the primary reasons that Joplin, Mo.-based Contract Freighters Inc. recently decided to install MobileMax in its fleet of 2,400 trucks, says Bruce Stockton, vice president of operations.
“Our tests have shown that MobileMax sends data via terrestrial networks 70 percent of the time, and 30 percent via satellite,” Stockton says. Because of the multi-mode capability, the cost to operate is considerably less than the company’s satellite-based Highway Master system, Stockton says.